Because I’m interested in religion (though not a paid-up member) I’m interested in mythology. Religion and mythology, being bed-fellows, inter-penetrate. Both paint pictures that can be felt to convey deep-seated truths about ourselves and our world – which unadorned and prosaic literalism would seem to have much less ability to convey.
The same is true when quantum physicists use words to attempt to interpret their formidably amazing mathematical equations – the accuracy, and therefore truth, of which can be experimentally verifiable to up to a dozen decimal points. They paint pictures of ‘dimensionless’particles; ‘waves‘ of probability; and of atoms (when not observed) being everywhere and nowhere at the same time. These are all ‘pointers’ to, but not literal descriptions of, whatever it is that’s fundamentally ‘real’. The very same is true, in my view, of religious ‘pictures’ such as those of incarnations, resurrections, ascensions and holy trinities, as well as of mythological ‘pictures’ whether of superhuman heroes, terrifying monsters, or seductively singing sirens.
I trace my awakening to this way of seeing things, to my discovery of Joseph Campbell’s ground-breaking study of comparative mythology, “The Masks of God”.
Here’s an edited version of part of the Prologue to Volume One …..
“The comparative study of the mythologies of the world compels us to view the cultural history of mankind as a unit; for we find that such themes as the fire-theft, deluge, land of the dead, virgin birth, and resurrected hero, have a worldwide distribution – appearing everywhere in new combinations while remaining, like the elements of a kaleidoscope, only a few and always the same. Furthermore, whereas in tales told for entertainment, such mythical themes are taken lightly, they appear also in religious contexts, where they are accepted not only as factually true, but even as revelations of the verities to which the whole culture is a living witness, and from which it derives both its spiritual authority and its temporal power.
No human society has yet been found in which such mythological motifs have not been rehearsed in liturgies; interpreted by seers, poets, theologians or philosophers; presented in art; magnified in song; and ecstatically experienced in life-empowering visions. Every people has received its own seal and sign of supernatural designation. And though many who bow with closed eyes in the sanctuaries of their own tradition rationally scrutinise and disqualify the sacraments of others, an honest comparison immediately reveals that all have been built from one fund of mythological motifs – variously selected, organised, interpreted, and ritualised, according to local need, but revered by every people on earth.
Are the modern civilisations to remain spiritually locked from each other in their local notions of the sense of the general tradition; or can we not now break through to some more profoundly based point and counterpoint of human understanding? The richly rewarded archeological researches of the past few decades; astonishing clarifications, simplifications and coordinations achieved by intensive studies in the spheres of philology, ethnology, philosophy, art history, folklore and religion; fresh insights in psychological research; and the many priceless contributions by the scholars, monks, and literary people of Asia, have combined to suggest a new image of the fundamental unity of the spiritual history of humanity.”
Science, at its best, rests in no fixed and final verities. It’s always thinking new thoughts, and devising fresh experiments, in an openness to new insights and directions. Different scientific disciplines can complement and illuminate each other in their ongoing search into ‘how things are’. Religion, at its best, rests in no fixed and final verities, and isn’t padlocked to ancient books, and yesterday’s dogmas. It, too, is open to new experiences, discoveries and directions. Globalisation has generated the opportunity for religions to encounter and learn from one another, if literalism, exclusivism, and aspirations of ‘world domination’ are laid aside.
This is not to say that all that’s past, must be dismissed and done away with. Quantum physics has opened up new and (even shockingly) different insights into reality, but the old Newtonian physics still enables us to land rockets on the moon. Foundations provide stability. They are there, however, not to be sat on, but to be built out from, in innovative and potentially unexpected ways.
If the world-wide religious “kaleidoscope” is built from the same fundamental ‘mythical’ constituents, then all of these need a thorough ‘shaking’ so that new patterns can emerge, bringing fresh understanding, relevance and meaning. No risks – no growth – no hope.
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